Updated: Monday, 15 Apr 2013, 11:20 AM MDT
Published : Thursday, 19 Jul 2012, 10:01 PM MDT
ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - Back in the Great Depression, the federal government created a program to help farmers weather the ups and downs of the growing season.
Today, however, recipients of farm subsidies don’t even have to be actual farmers.
In fact, a Larry Barker investigation found hundreds of Albuquerque residents have collected millions of dollars in farm payments over the years without ever planting a single seed, hoeing a row or firing up a tractor.
"The average New Mexican ought to care about farm subsidies because we’re talking about billions of dollars--of their dollars, taxpayer dollars--going in to be paid to people who aren’t even doing farming," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. "If you are not on the land working the farm, it seems to me that you’re not a farmer."
It all comes down to the government’s definition of farming: As long as you own farm land and you are "actively engaged in farming," you qualify for subsidies.
"'Actively engaged' should mean that you are actively engaged in the actual day-to-day operations of the farming business," said Don Carr, senior policy analyst with the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group. "Actually, you do not have to be a farmer to collect farm subsidies.
"You can be an investor in farm land. You can be a very well-off individual living in most every major, American city. By virtue of just owning farm land, you get subsidies."
And that is exactly what’s happening in Albuquerque.
KRQE News 13’s investigation found that in 2010 alone, 700 Albuquerque residents pocketed more than $2 million in government farm subsidies. Only 12 percent of those recipients received payments for farms in New Mexico.
Most were for rural properties in other states like New York and Kentucky.
None of those four people returned phone calls seeking comment. News 13 is not identifying the four because they are not accused of any wrongdoing.
Lawrence Rael, the newly appointed New Mexico state director for the USDA Farm Services Agency, said farm subsidies are handed out partially based on financial risk.
"You don’t have to be the actual individual on the field, if you will, for the traditional view or in the overall as working the tractor, working the cattle," Rael said. "You are the owner. You are taking the risk in the investment."
Carr said that is not a wise use of taxpayer money.
"In my opinion, when you have 82 percent of New Mexico farmers not receiving any subsidies, and you have 700 recipients in the city of Albuquerque receiving subsidies," he said. "This money is not well-spent."
Farm-subsidy legislation is now being debated in Washington D.C. In fact, the U.S. Senate has already voted to eliminate the controversial subsidies, which could save taxpayers an estimated $23 billion over 10 years.
Udall said it’s time to stop giving subsidies to nonfarmers.
"What the federal government tried to do is design a system so if there was a bad season or two, that you could still have farmers on the land," he said. "The original purpose of helping small, family farmers appears to have disappeared."